I need to stress the fact that our journey through Europe is a road trip. We spend a substantial portion of our time sitting in the car, hours at a time, often days at a time. In addition to this, our navigation through Europe has been dictated by what the little Golf and caravan can handle. It is necessary for us to avoid hilly areas (Alpine regions are strictly no go), gravelly roads or narrow ways. Therefore, due to the restrictions placed on us by our mode of transport we have not always gone through areas in countries we would have otherwise chosen.
Our path through Italy, like all the other countries, was determined by these conditions in conjunction with our objective to reach our “must see” destinations and of course the time it took to get from place to place. So I am willing to concede that perhaps some of the Italy that did not appeal to me was not on the usual tourist trail. However, we were often driving through non touristy areas in the other countries and did not have this problem. We also drove almost exclusively on minor roads which in other countries has offered us very aesthetically pleasing vistas. This formula did not reap the same result in Italy.
The large portion of our time spent driving through countries means that literally what we see out the window on our way from one destination to the next very much formulates our impression of what a country is like. Countries such as Germany and Slovenia were such a pleasure to drive through as the views we were afforded out our car window each day were lovely. Granted sometimes in Germany we were quite fatigued by the end a day of driving and very glad not to be looking out the window anymore. But with such pleasant countryside to drive through, our marathon to get to Croatia was made much more bearable.
It is with regret that I cannot send the same compliment Italy’s way. Straight off the near picture perfect Slovenia, we entered Italy via the north east and began our journey to Tuscany. We were shocked and extremely disappointed at how unattractive the countryside was. We drove through kilometre after kilometre of uninspiring cleared land. It was dotted with dreary towns, cities, factories and flat plains of crops and massive power lines seemingly going every which way. All of which was not very nice to look at.
Our first stop in Italy was at the coastal town of Caorle. I freely admit that I am probably a bit of a snob when it comes to beaches. I do believe that Australia can lay claim to some of the most stunning beaches in the world. It takes a lot to impress me in this area. Caorle did not. It’s beaches had dirty brown coloured sand and not a wave in sight. This was coupled with acre after acre of umbrellas and deckchairs, all lined up like a little town, complete with a walk way so that your feet could be spared touching the sand (I guess).
Clearly, Europeans do not share my opinion of this seaside town as the camping ground we stayed in was full to the gills with holidaymakers. We were packed in like sardines and it had a decidedly unrelaxed feel as a result. I couldn’t even bring myself to sit outside at our trusty little table as I felt like I was in a fish bowl on full display for every passer by and neighbour.
Due to the way our travels took us we stayed in four seaside campgrounds in total. With the exception of San Bartolomeo al Mare in Liguria, I found all of the beaches rather lack lustre. Although San Bartolomeo was a beach with small pebbles it had a nice enough feel to it and we actually took the time out one morning before driving onward to lie on the beach and I went for a dip.
Our dismay at the depressing landscape we drove through was finally put on hold when we arrived at Ferrara. I called Ferrara my “shining light” at the time as I was beginning to feel worried that I would not like Italy at all. We stayed in a very small and quiet tree filled campsite from which we could walk into the walled city of Ferrara. I really enjoyed Ferrara (as I mentioned above in the food and people sections). The walls of the city are truly impressive as they are massive and I was amazed that such an enormous wall was constructed so long ago and still remains. Although Ferrara is not going to win any awards for being the most beautiful city in Italy, it is nonetheless appealing and turned out to be one of the highpoints of our time in Italia.
After our short break in Ferrara we pressed on in the hope that Tuscany would be a major turning point. It wasn’t. In fact Tuscany sealed the deal on our decision to cut our time in Italy. We had originally planned to spend up to four weeks in Italy but in the end we managed just a day over two.
My secret admiration from afar probably would have been best left as just that. Reality is a bitch sometimes. We spent a whole day (at least six hours driving) going from Tuscan town to Tuscan town. The countryside in between was nothing like either of us had imagined. We both thought it was nice enough and Damien correctly said that if you just focused on one area and didn’t do a sweeping panoramic look you could believe that Tuscany on occasion was pretty. However, sweeping looks meant that the nice view would be spoiled by some ugly factory, quarry, disused building or string of unmaintained homes.
My dreams of uninterrupted vistas of beautiful rolling hills with vineyards and olive groves, flowers growing wild and old stone farmhouses was just that, a dream. I was interested in something that Damien shared with me from the book he read, The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate. The book is written about the author’s experiences in in Tuscany in the 1980’s. He mentions that they found that the majority of the old farmhouses had been demolished to make way for more land to be used during tough financial times. This at least goes a little to explain why after watching a Room With a View my vision of Tuscany was somewhat different to that of EM Forster. I am prepared to believe that Tuscany once did look as romantically bucolic in the time of EM Forster. It’s just that times have a changed and so evidently, has Tuscany.
Now that I have driven through the Var and Provence in France I am inclined to say that what I had been dreaming of all this time was in fact the French countryside! I did think the towns we went to San Gimignano, Volterra, Radda and Greve in Chianti were all very nice. San Gimignano was my favourite, it’s medieval towers were unique and the town cut quite a picture from a distance. In addition to this, the landscape for a about a ten minute drive around it was also lovely and the only part that came close to my lofty expectations.
Damien and I have discussed at length that surely we are not the only people to be disappointed by Tuscany. Upon talking to my brother one day I discovered that he too felt that most of the Tuscan landscape fails to live up to the hype. Another friend of mine also said to me in an email the other day that he too feels that it has long been over romanticised. Seems Damien and I are not totally alone in this assessment.
As I mentioned in Part 1, my brother was in Tuscany last September and stayed in the walled town of Barga which is in the north of Tuscany near the Apuan Alps. Mat thoroughly enjoyed this part of Tuscany and upon his recommendation we visited it. It is definitely situated in a nicer area of Tuscany than where we were and yet it still didn’t have the effect of changing my overall opinion. I think I can best sum up Tuscany by saying it is like a fading movie star who in her decline has been extensively air brushed by the magazines to perpetuate the myth of her beauty to the masses. It is true she once shone but she now needs a dedicated team of makeup artists, wardrobe stylists and computer wizzes to iron out the rough and saggy edges. Plenty will still buy the magazines and swallow the images whole. A few of us will question the truth of what we have been sold.
Tuscany is living on the coat tails of the past.
We toyed for a short while with driving to Umbria as we had read that this is a beautiful part of Italy. We were very keen to compensate for our Tuscan let down. However, the time it would have taken to get to Umbria and back and still keep on track for our arrival date back in Germany meant we had to ditch that idea. Plus, we were concerned about wasting any more time by possibly driving through countryside we did not enjoy. We could not be guaranteed that Umbria would deliver. The cut your losses and run mentality had started to creep in.
So we slashed and burned our list of other Italian destinations in preference for making our exit to France. I was however, unwilling to relinquish Rome. I was fairly confident I would like Rome and it seemed criminal to have gone all the way to Italy and not see it. We were weighed down by the fact it would take a number of days to travel down to Rome and back. We were worried about possibly going through uninspiring areas when we could be making better use of the time getting to France. Luckily, Damien came up with a great idea that we could simply drive north from Tuscany, do the Cinque Terra on the way through and leave the caravan near Genova (north west Italy) and then fly into Rome. It would actually save us money as petrol is so expensive. I am pleased to report that I loved Rome. It blew me away. But I will save time here and write more detail about Rome in a separate post. I should also add that what we saw in the Vatican City was simply jaw dropping too. Although I considered it as part of my Rome experience, it is a state in its own right. So I guess the grandeur and spectacle of the Vatican can’t be claimed by Italy as part of my good experiences in the country.
And before I wind up I should say that the Cinque Terra was a great part of our Italian trip. The hike we did was extremely interesting and also an enjoyable challenge in the high 30’s heat we scaled those hills in. Well worth the effort. Though again, I have to admit that I enjoyed the nature of the type of walk it was and the interesting hiking terrain it provided more than the views. The views were great but when you compare this massive tourist draw card to say the natural beauty of the equally massive tourist mecca of Plitvice Lakes, it isn’t in the same ball park.
It was somewhat sad for me that probably the driving experience I enjoyed the most was that which we travelled through at the very end. I found the landscape in Liguria to be quite beautiful. What we saw ranged from lovely hilltops covered with forest to the “look at moi” (I’m channelling Kath and Kim here in case this is not obvious!) flashy towns of the Riviera. I still hope one day I will see more of the north of Italy as I have heard that the Dolomites and Lake Como are gorgeous. I had hoped originally that we would find a way to go to these areas this trip but they were essentially impossible this time. This was due to the available time we had and the capabilities of the car to pull the caravan into those regions.
C’est La Vie. It’s on to France!
I’d seen that beach resort photo previously with Damo holding his nose so I was not surprised when you said you were underwhelmed by beaches! Euro beach resorts are generally the pits – though as we know, we are spoilt down here in Oz. I remember one I stayed at in Portugal – me and my mates nicknamed it the refugee camp such was the vast numbers and cramped confines (it was peak holiday season mind you so probably not the best time to go). Urban Italia is indeed an ugly blight. I remember in Verona, me and Sal walked through one of the shittiest looking neighbourhoods you could ever wish not to come across before suddenly emerging in Verona’s truly beautiful city centre. I remember Sally and I saying to each other about Italy that for such a wealthy country, a lot of its cities sure didn’t look like it – and this is in the rich north. I suspect that the much poorer south probably retains more of that rustic feel for reasons of lack of moolah. On reflection though, I generally forget the ugly stuff and remember the memorable things. Ugliness is a common thing though across Urban Mediterranean Europe. It is butt ugly (I’m looking at you Greece, Spain, Portugal). Urban Northern Europe is not especially beautiful by any means – and there are shitty areas up that way – but I suppose on the whole it just looks like they care a bit more. And I understand your point about Tuscan countryside as well. Granted where we stayed (Volterra – we didn’t move much beyond there, San Gim and Siena) was IMO quite beautiful but I remember a lot of parts of Tuscany we drove by on our way in and out of there were scrub. Volterra is a special place for us as it is where we found out Sal was up the duff with C (via a concierge translating for me with lines like “Put the stick in the urine” in a booming voice across our little hotel’s foyer to some bemused looks from other guests). Anyway, you can now tick Italy off your list and despite some disappointments it still seems like you guys still had some great experiences in that country. I guess though any country was always going to struggle in matching up to Slovenia eh? 😉 Onwards and upwards!